The Kindness Test

I am a keen listener to All In The Mind, the Radio 4 programme about psychology, so I was delighted when the presenter, Claudia Hammond, devoted a whole episode to the theme of kindness just before we returned to school. Kindness is one of the Academy’s three core values. A strength of the heart, it is a cornerstone of our Academy culture and central to our approach to education. I was therefore fascinated to hear what the psychological research has to tell us about the subject.

The episode was devoted to the Kindness Test, a mass research project from the University of Sussex. The project seeks to explore how kindness is viewed within society at large and will add to the growing research base on the importance of kindness, exploring issues such as: 

  • What are the most common kind acts people carry out?
  • Where do people most often experience kindness?  
  • What are the barriers to behaving more kindly? 
  • How is kindness valued in the workplace? 
  • Is kindness viewed as a weakness?  
  • What prevents people from being kinder? 
  • How does kindness relate to factors such as well-being, mental health, geographical location, gender and personality? 
  • How is kindness connected with compassion and empathy? 
  • How does kindness relate to our value systems?  

The questionnaire for the research project is only open to participants who are 18 years of age or older, so unfortunately our students cannot participate – although I think they would have a lot to say about the topic and plenty of examples to share! But the radio programme which accompanied it was a fascinating exploration of ideas around kindness, and what we already know. Here are some of my key takeaways:

Kindness is instinctive

Chief researcher Professor Robert Banerjee explained the theory that the “warm glow” we get from helping others activates the same part of our brain as eating delicious food, or receiving a treat for ourselves. Studies have shown that young children at the age of two will help others, or comfort those in distress, even when no reward is expected for themselves. All of this suggests that kindness to others is something instinctive that gives our species an evolutionary advantage. Perhaps kindness strengthened our stone age or Neanderthal communities, building trust and mutual support between individuals so that they would function more effectively as one unit? This evolutionary advantage now manifests in our modern society as the “warm glow” of doing something kind for someone else.

Kindness is selfless

Even though we receive a wellbeing boost when we’re kind to others, psychologists don’t think this is the reason why we are kind. In fact, if we are kind to others only because we know we’ll get rewarded for it – either with praise, recognition, or a physical reward – we don’t get the same “warm glow” as when we’re kind just because we want to help somebody else out. That selfless kindness, when we help someone out without any thought for recognition or reward for ourselves, feels better than doing the right thing because we know we’ll get something out of it. It sounds like a contradiction – but it makes sense!

Kindness builds a strong culture

Jürgen Klopp is cited as a “leading light” in kind leadership

Pinky Lilani, one of the guests on the programme, discussed research undertaken with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford into kindness and leadership. Using “leading lights” including Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp, the researchers found that kindness has the ability to build trust, confidence and loyalty in business, sport, and industry. It is becoming an increasingly influential leadership style, characterised by empathy and respect – and it gets results.

Kindness isn’t soft

One of the criticisms of kindness is that it’s soft, or that is can be perceived as a weakness if you’re too kind. But actually, providing honest critique and feedback to somebody is kind, as it helps them to improve – but it is neither soft, weak or easy. It’s actually really hard to do. But, when someone can do better, the kindest thing we can do it to help them to get there.

Honest, constructive feedback can be hard to give – and to receive!

At Churchill we work really hard to build a culture where we can provide that honest, helpful feedback to help one another improve. We talk about being “hard on the content, supportive of the person.” This means approaching feedback with the highest expectations, but with empathy about how the critique will be received. On the other side, we expect those receiving the feedback to focus on the improvements they can make to continue to make a positive difference to themselves, understanding that the feedback comes with kind intentions.

Kindness helps us understand diversity

Robin Banerjee gave a really helpful explanation of how empathy and kindness help us understand difference. He puts his case so perfectly that I quote it here rather than attempting to summarise:

The fact of the matter is that there is always going to be differences of opinion, different perspectives, different points of view. Part of the challenge for all of us as we grow up…is navigating difference, working out how to respond when other people have different perspectives from you. And that’s the cornerstone of empathy – to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see the world from their perspective. So I think one of the things that we need to recognise is that it isn’t about standardising everything so that everyone thinks in exactly the same way. The beauty of our world comes from difference, comes from diversity. So kindness is all about the stance that we take in navigating that diversity.

Robin Banerjee, Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex and principal investigator for the Kindness Test

It was a fascinating programme, full of insights into a quality that is so important to us at Churchill. I have filled in the questionnaire; I look forward to hearing what the research discovers about kindness in our world today when it is published in 2022.

Welcome back!

And, just like that, we’re back! It has been fantastic this week to have the Academy full of students again, getting back to learning. The screens are already filling up with extra curricular opportunities, including auditions for the school production. It promises to be spectacular!

As term has begun, I have met with all main school students for their “welcome back” assemblies. In those assemblies I have been through the practical arrangements for the year ahead, but also taken the opportunity to reinforce our vision, values and expectations so that everyone is clear.

Site Development

The interior of Stuart House, August 2021

Over the summer we have completed the second and begun the third and final phase of our redevelopment works in Stuart and Lancaster House, home to Humanities and Languages. The second phase has seen the completion of the middle section of the building, with further new air-conditioned classrooms, staff offices, and facilities. The third phase began with the removal of all the internal walls and classrooms around the Stuart Green Room – as you can see in the picture above, it created a massive space! Contractors are now beginning the process of building new classrooms, offices, student toilets and a social space, all with the latest materials designed to control acoustics within the building – and with air conditioning as standard. We expect this work to be completed by March 2022, when we will be able to move in!

COVID

COVID is still with us, and we are still taking precautions in line with the government guidance. This includes the testing of students on their return to school, and the re-introduction of twice-weekly home testing for COVID-19. In my assemblies, I reiterated the current COVID guidance and procedures, which are explained in detail on the website.

Why are we here?

The start of the year is the ideal time to remind us all of why we are here – why Churchill Academy & Sixth Form exists in the first place. Our purpose is simple:

To inspire and enable young people to make a positive difference

I talked to our students about the positive difference they can make to themselves, every single day they attend the Academy. At the end of each day, I asked them to reflect to themselves: what do I know now that I didn’t know yesterday? What am I better at now than I was twenty four hours ago? How have I improved?

It’s also the case that our students can make a positive difference to the Academy that they belong to. Each of them is unique; each of them brings something special to our community. Their being here – the contribution that they make – makes the Academy better.

And, finally, it is our ambition that our students can go out into the world and – as a result of all they have learned at Churchill – make a positive difference in our society. We hope that they will be able to solve problems, help others, and improve things for all of us and for generations to come. It’s a lofty ambition, but when you look at the potential of our Churchill students this year I genuinely believe that anything is possible.

Inclusion and diversity

I outlined an important focus of our work this year, on inclusion and diversity, but explaining what we mean by it. In simple terms, this priority is about:

Ensuring that everybody is welcome, and every member of the Academy feels that they belong

This is a shared responsibility for us all, and something we will be promoting and developing – with the help of our students – throughout the year. It is essential we get this right so we can continue to build the friendly, welcoming community we are all so proud to be a part of.

Sustainability

Our second area of focus for the year is on our own sustainability. We have an ambition to be a carbon-neutral school by 2030. This is no easy task in a resource-hungry institution like ours! But, again with our students’ help, we are driving down energy usage, driving down waste, and improving recycling, encouraging re-usable resources, and looking after our green spaces and facilities. Lots more to follow on this as the year progresses.

Learning

At the end of my “welcome back” assembly, I turn to our core business: learning. I take every opportunity, including this one, to remind our students of the six habits and dispositions that have been shown through research to have the biggest impact on successful learning. These are the things that we promote through our effort grades, our values, our lesson planning, and our classroom expectations.

Our learning values

These are the things that we expect from our students every minute of every hour of every day. From my visits to classrooms this week, they have taken this message to heart. I saw Year 8 students grappling with the concept of infinity in Maths and exploring the story of Edward Colston in Drama; Year 10 students learning about synecdoche in English; Year 7s exploring the Norman conquest of Britain and responding to medieval Occitan troubadour music; Year 11 learning about the nervous system’s response to stimuli; and Sixth Form students learning from alumni about successfully applying to Oxford and Cambridge University. And that’s just scratching the surface!

The year’s got off to a great start: it’s up to all of us to keep it going!

Year 9 Learning Groups and the Academy Values

Last week’s assembly, coordinated by Mr Davies, explained the people behind the names of this year’s Year 9 learning groups. They are all people with important links to our nearest city, Bristol – and they have all showed the Academy’s values. We hope that these figures from our local history will inspire our current students to similar endeavours of kindness, curiosity, and determination.

Brunel: curiosity and determination

Brunel learning group is named for Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the mechanical and civil engineer who designed the Great Western Railway, Clifton Suspension Bridge, SS Great Britain and numerous significant ships, tunnels and bridges. He was a prominent figure during the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain, and he revolutionised public transport and modern engineering. His endless curiosity led to him finding innovative solutions to engineering problems, and his determination ensured that he overcame the challenges in his way.

Stephenson: kindness and determination

Stephenson learning group is named after the civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson. He was born in 1937, in Essex. He joined the RAF as the only black cadet in his regiment. Many years later he became a Youth and Community Development Worker in St Pauls, Bristol. It was during this time that he campaigned for a bus boycott as he didn’t accept that the bus company wouldn’t employ black drivers. He decided he was going to do something about this! He fought for black people to be treated fairly in public places in Bristol. With Muhammed Ali, he also set up ‘Muhammed Ali Sports Development Association’ to promote sports development among ethnic minority young people to help develop self-confidence  and social interaction. In 2008 he was given the Freedom of the City of Bristol in recognition of the work he has done to bring the black and white communities together.

Fragapane: determination

Claudia Fragapane is a British artistic gymnast who grew up in Bristol. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, she was the first English woman to win four gold medals since 1930. In 2015, Fragapane was part of the women’s gymnastics team that won Great Britain’s first-ever team medal, a bronze, at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, alongside Churchill Academy alumnus Ruby Harrold. She also finished fourth in Strictly Come Dancing!

Park: curiosity and determination

Nick Park is the famous animator, director and writer behind Wallace and Gromit, Creature Comforts, and Shaun the Sheep. He has been nominated for an Academy Award a total of six times and won four with Creature Comforts (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). He has also received five BAFTA Awards, including the BAFTA for Best Short Animation for A Matter of Loaf and Death.

He has spent most of his career working for Aardman Animations in the Bristol area. His curiosity has led him to develop a unique and appealing world of claymation animation. Meanwhile, his technique of stop-motion animation – shooting films one frame at a time, moving each model just a fraction between each shot – requires a huge amount of determination!

Blackwell: kindness, determination and curiosity

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol in 1821, although she moved with her family moved to America when she was 11 years old. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the USA in 1847, which required determination and curiosity. As a medical doctor, she showed great kindness when she treated wounded and injured soldiers in the American Civil War, despite strong opposition from male colleagues.

Later, she opened her own medical practices in New York (1852) and in London (1871) where she taught, trained and inspired other female doctors to follow in her footsteps. She retired from medicine in 1877 to work as a social and moral reformer, co-founding the National Health Society.

She showed determination, battled all her life and her successes had been monumental. In 1881, there were only 25 female doctors registered in England and Wales but by 1911 there were 495 registered. Her ambition and success has inspired many generations of female doctors to pursue medical careers and achieve the ‘impossible dream’.

Kenney: determination

Kenney learning group is named after Annie Kenney (1879-1953). Annie Kenney was a key figure in the suffragette movement which campaigned for women to have the vote in the early twentieth century. Kenney was one of the few working class women to rise to prominence in the Suffragette campaign. She became a leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union and  spent some years working as an organiser in Bristol. She hit the headlines after being imprisoned for several days for assault and obstruction, after heckling Sir Edward Grey at rally on the issue of votes for women.

Kenney was imprisoned a total of 13 times. She repeatedly went on hunger strike in prison, and underwent brutal force-feeding from the authorities. She remained determined to confront the authorities and highlight the injustice of the treatment of suffragettes by the male-dominated authorities.

When the First World War broke out, Annie Kenney accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes from the WSPU in ending their activism. Instead, they took on jobs that had previously been done by men, who were now away fighting, in support of the national war effort. Her actions, and those of others in the movement, led to women gaining the vote in 1918.

Dirac: curiosity and determination

Dirac learning group is named after the physicist Paul Dirac, born in Bristol in 1902. Dirac made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation which describes the behaviour of sub-atomic particles called fermions. He also predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”. He is widely regarded as one of the most significant physicists of the 20th Century.

Brohn: kindness and determination

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979, Clifton-born Penny Brohn knew she needed more than just care and treatment for her body: she recognised that she would need support for her “mind, spirit, emotions, heart and soul.” She co-founded a charity centre with her friend Pat Pilkington called the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, which offered patients complementary therapy to support them alongside medical treatment. She showed determination to overcome a great deal of controversy and scepticism to support those living with cancer. Penny Brohn died in 1999, having lived with cancer for 20 years. Her kindness lives on in the work of the charity she co-founded, which provides care to those living with cancer before, during and after treatment.

More: kindness, curiosity and determination

Last but not least, learning group More is named after Hannah More (1745-1833). Hannah More was born in Bristol, where she taught at a school founded by her father and began writing plays. She became known as a poet and playwright, as well as a writer of moral and religious texts, and moved to Wrington in 1802. She campaigned to extend education to the poor, and to girls, who otherwise had no access to schooling. Vitally, More also campaigned against the slave trade. Hannah More is buried beside her sisters at the Church of All Saints in Wrington: you can see a bust of her in the south porch to this day.

Channelling Curiosity

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Curiosity is one of our core values at Churchill. It’s important because when you’re curious about something, you process it deeply, rather than superficially. You also voluntarily spend more time learning about things that spark your curiosity. As a result, you more readily remember what you learn. The desire to find out more about the world we live in, about other people, about the way things work…these are the fuels that feed the fire of education.

Children, adults and most animals have a natural, in-built curiosity. Biologists believe that this instinctive curiosity is a survival mechanism which was selected through evolution, because those animals that were curious and explored their environment were able to identify opportunities and risks in their environment, and were therefore more likely to survive. Clever stuff!

However, curiosity can also be harnessed as a distraction. I fell into this trap this week. Before I sat down to some school work that I needed to do, I thought I would treat myself and watch the latest Taylor Swift video on YouTube. Unfortunately, as the video finished, I noticed the title of a video in the “up next” column to the right: “Taylor Swift reacts to embarrassing footage of herself after laser eye surgery.” It caught my attention, and made me curious enough to click it to see what it was about. As did the next one. And the next one. Half an hour later, I was watching Brie Larson playing a virtual reality lightsabre game with Jimmy Fallon on a late-night American talk show. Entertaining though this was, there was actual work that I should have been doing and I’d actually only wanted to watch the one video…

clickbait

I’m sure many of you have had this same experience, and been sucked in by the clever algorithms that are designed to grab and keep our attention. Like on Netflix, when the episode finishes and you’re just reaching for the remote to switch it off because you know you really need to go to bed, but then just at that moment the next episode starts. Your curiosity is sparked, wondering what happens next…and you sink back onto the sofa with that deadly “I’ll just watch one more episode.”

Why do we fall so easily into the clickbait trap, when we know there’s important work we should be doing? Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains:

Research shows that the trigger for curiosity is our sense that there’s an easy opportunity to learn a lot. That’s a moment-to-moment judgment, which is why curiosity can come and go so quickly.

Furthermore, curiosity is not influenced by long-term learning goals. That’s why, even though I’m a psychologist who loves his work, I still might be bored at a talk on psychology. But Internet content that promises quick and easy information draws my attention even if, after the fact, it doesn’t seem worth my time.

Willingham advises that the best way to avoid the distracting diversion of tempting links is to find stimulating content that’s just as interesting as the stuff designed to keep you occupied on the internet.

Don’t expect children to avoid Internet time-wasters on their own.

Do recognize that curiosity can’t be controlled directly, but you can offer more tempting targets. Help kids find them. And model the behavior by creating a similar resource list for yourself.

I think this is helpful advice. But I know that my willpower sometimes isn’t up to it. So, to get my work done, I put my phone in another room. I close every other window and tab on my computer, other than the one I need. And I focus on just the one thing that I’m supposed to do, until it’s done. And then – after I’ve finished my work – I treat myself to that Taylor Swift video. And maybe just one more.